Much Shelist wants to be the first phone call businesses make for every legal situation.

To do that, the Chicago-based law firm has resisted the pressure for firms its size in big markets to specialize or merge to grow larger. It has pressed forward as a full-service shop with midsize rates, and added more depth to the increasingly important intellectual property and environmental practices.

"Ten years ago, we were told we were out of our minds for doing this," said Mitchell Roth, chairman of the firm’s management committee. "If you talked to consultants, everything in the world is bigger, bigger is better."

Much Shelist’s approach is resonating with clients closely scrutinizing their legal expenditures since the economy soured six years ago, Roth said. "A lot of our clients use larger firms and go upscale, but they continue to come back to us because of the service. They still want a relationship with their law firm."

To show for it, the firm secured a broad range of work during 2012 — matters including a $500 million outsourcing agreement for Southwest Airlines Co. and a win for Chicago-based Erie Brush & Manufacturing Corp. before the National Labor Relations Board in a collective-bargaining case before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

The Southwest Airlines case, for example, was a three-month project in which Much Shelist partner James Kunick, representing Amadeus IT Group S.A., coordinated resources across the globe to make it work, said Stephen Stein, a partner at Dallas’ Thompson & Knight who represented the airline.

"I have found doing a lot of that over the years, [that] it takes a little finesse," Stein said.

Remaining a full-service, 85-lawyer firm hasn’t been easy. Much Shelist is actively recruiting lateral talent who often are skeptical of the job security of working at something less than a megafirm. It spends more than other firms its size on marketing, focusing on a strong Web presence and seeking critiques from clients, Roth said. Practices include business and finance; intellectual property; real estate; labor and employment; health care; wealth transfer and succession planning; and litigation and dispute resolution.

Unlike the large firms, Much Shelist is not 10 lawyers deep in every area, and that can make potential clients skittish.

"I believe [that] to compete we need to successfully grow the firm in all areas," Roth said. "It’s not [to] grow so I can charge more; it’s [to] not have clients who worry we don’t have the depth and expertise to handle the matters."

The main pitch to recruits: We have a great corporate culture and you can succeed here. Much Shelist boasts that the Chicago Tribune named it one of three law firms on the newspaper’s "Top 100 Workplaces" list for 2012, a ranking based on employee surveys.

It’s a culture the firm has carefully cultivated. Much Shelist even hired a consultant to teach its leaders to be better interviewers — to ask the right questions of ­potential partners and find the right fit. "We hire quality people who have a good life outside of work," Roth said.

He doesn’t want lawyers billing 2,000 hours a year; he wants them to bill less and, instead, engage in marketing and serve as productive members of their communities. The firm doesn’t have the large institutional clients of the bigger firms, so its lawyers have to be out there meeting people, he said.

Lawyers who are coaching their children’s sports teams instead of grinding away at the office, for example, are better parents, better people and are meeting other people (potential future clients, of course), Roth said. "Our goal is to make sure our lawyers are out in the community as much as possible," he said.

To that same end, Much Shelist became the Chicago law firm sponsor of the Founder Institute, providing advice on legal and business matters to entrepreneurs during both the startup and growth phases of their businesses.

The firm, which operates a second office in Irvine, Calif., has provided legal counsel to technology startups in Chicago and Silicon Valley for 15 years.

Last year, Roth spent time with a "vision committee" of seven or eight partners, exploring whether Much Shelist should become a boutique or should pursue a merger.

"Hands down, we want to stay the course as a competitive midsize firm," Roth said. "We know who we are, we know who we want to be."